OUTSIDERS find out that they are different at an early age. Former British middleweight champion Neville Brown, who retired in 2000 with a record of 32-8 (26), discovered this when growing up in Burton-on-Trent. His card was marked by a chance encounter that made him realise that people would judge him by the colour of his skin, and this would leave him on the outside looking in during his formative years.
The 55-year-old sounded relaxed when we spoke, his voice was clear as a whistle and he had perfect recollection of his career. Sadly, he could also recall being made to feel different and left out from a young age. this feeling never left him, eventually spilling over to his up-and-down boxing career.
“I hope you can hear me — my son’s parrot is squawking away in the background to get my attention,” said Brown when speaking to Boxing News. “Yes, I remember the first time racism hurt me. A van pulled up next to me next to Trent Bridge. The passenger leans out of the window and just spits in my face. I was 12 years of age and in shock.
“A grown man had just spat in my face. I am mixed race. I used to get called ‘Half-caste’. I’d get it from both sides. Black people would call me ‘Mulato Man’, which means you have got white in you, and from the whites I’d get the N-word, ‘Wog’, ‘Jam Jar’. I knew I wasn’t accepted in school. I got into fights, well more like scuffles, and you do start thinking there is an us and them.
“They said I was going to get kicked out of school. My dad was a very stern Jamaican man, a very proud man, so he came in to ask what had happened. They accused me of fighting and bullying. They said I’d had five fights so I must be the problem.
“My dad asked who I was fighting. He got a strange look, but asked to bring these other kids in. They brought the five kids in, all of them friends with each other, and my dad said: ‘There is a gang here. Would you as an individual go and pick a fight with five men regularly?’ The teacher told them to leave the room and I was back in school. I was going down a road that would send me to prison, and it was education that was doing it to me.
“It was sport that got me back. Everyone needs something they can go to in life: reading, sports, dancing — whatever it is. You need something to stop it all from bringing you down. I was very good at Judo, but it was boxing that did it for me.”
Brown rose above it to become an esteemed holder of the Lord Lonsdale belt via five successful defences of the title. Still, it was never easy, he had a few trainers in between training himself at his old amateur gym and never got to maximise his talent.
Indeed, the former star amateur struggled to make the transition from fighting all the time in the unpaid ranks to waiting for the phone to ring as a professional while flogging himself in the gym for fights that never materialised. Then a first-round loss to journeyman Paul Wesley in his 12th bout threw a huge spanner into the works. It was going to be a hard road back to any form of title contention.
“I was always in the gym training like a mad man, but the phone wouldn’t always go off,” he said. “Then I’d have some time off from training and the phone would ring, so you’ve got a decision to make. I was always carrying an injury or trying to make the weight. There was a pattern going on.
“That’s why I preferred it as an amateur, you knew you would be fighting every two weeks. After I signed with Mickey Duff, I’d never know when the phone would ring. For my first loss, I had the wrong mentality. I just thought Paul was a journeyman.
“Before the fight, I saw him on the pads with Nobby Nobbs, who was an amazing trainer, and thought: ‘Wow!’ I got knocked down early and was thinking: ‘What the hell! This guy shouldn’t be able to hit like this.’ I was stunned. It was a funny experience, one that I’d never had before because if you know someone can hit you are ready for it. ‘Boom!’ — I get put over again and John Coyle is counting. Then he stopped the fight. It was also the first time my dad had watched me box, he was right there in the crowd. I’d had a head cold, so internally I blamed it on that.
“I got the rematch in Burton only for Paul to pull out with a head cold! I’m thinking: ‘He’s more professional than me.’ It got put back by two weeks. Then we fight again, and I felt the power again. I assumed that Nobby’s training had turned him around.”
Brown won a decision in the return fight and then made an even bigger one. If you have not heard of Nobby Nobbs then look him up. The veteran trainer used to have a stable of the most solid journeymen that desperate promoters could call upon at any moment: Peter Buckley, Arv Mittoo, Howard Clarke and my personal favourite, Tony Randall.
“Nobby re-educated me,” revealed Brown. “What a boxing brain. He turned it around. He worked on what would happen if I missed, what would I leave open? I learned why his fighters could handle themselves in the ring. Knocking people out is one thing, learning how to train and box properly is another. Nobby taught me that.”
Brown ended up at the Ingle’s gym in Sheffield. Although he was not a fan of the body sparring and some of their training drills, he put together a run of nine wins that led to a British middleweight title shot against the fearsome Frank Grant, who had defeated Herol Graham to win the title the previous year. Brown won in seven. He had turned things around.
“Frank Grant, what a machine,” recalled Brown. “Everyone thought I was just running around the ring, but if you ask Frank, he’ll tell you that I would punish him every time he made a mistake. I could hit hard, but I wouldn’t try to over-hit, if that makes sense. I have to thank Frank for giving me that fight as I got the notice I needed for it.”
A successful seventh-round retirement win against Andy Flute in his first defence set the stage for a European title tilt. However, a seventh-round defeat to the undefeated Italian Agostino Cardamone in Solofra bounced Brown back down to British title level, where he remained peerless via successful British title defences defeats over Antonio Fernandez, Carlo Colarusso and Shaun Cummins. True to form, Brown dropped a decision to the unfancied Anthony Ivory between the Fernandez and Colarusso wins to continue his bewildering, maddening form.
“You get a call asking to fight at short-notice, you don’t have any money on your hip, so you take it only for it to fall through,” he said, recalling his earlier career. “When I got the British title, I had something that belonged to me, something I wasn’t prepared to let go.”
The win over Cummins led to an unlikely shot at Steve Collins, who had rampaged his way to victories over Chris Eubank, twice, and Cornelius Carr. At this point of the conversation, the garrulous former fighter took over and sprayed out a perfectly recollected stream of thought about his biggest night in boxing.
“It was a beautiful experience,” he said, which was the last thing I expected to hear. “I got the phone call from one of Frank Warren’s guys: ‘Do you fancy Steve Collins, Neville?’. I’d made it, I going to fight for the world title. I thought with three-months to prepare I’d be able to win it only to get told it was four weeks away. My brain said, ‘No’, but I had been told during that call they’d go to someone else if I didn’t. I took it and just sat there thinking about the fact I was going to box for the world title. Then I realised it was super-middleweight and I was training myself again by then, so I phoned Brendan.
“I needed three-months to get ready. After two months of training, you are ticking over, by the third month you are ready. At least with this one I could eat a lot, almost too much. I had two breakfasts on the morning of the weigh-in. I hit 12 stone with a potbelly on me. Steve is trying to psych me out. I’m being asked if the hypnotism bothers me. It didn’t, we all self-hypnotise in some way by telling ourselves either negative or positive things.
“Anyway, he weighs in and he’s dry. He tries to intimidate me when we shake hands. I twist his wrist a little and say: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’ I walk away feeling as cool as f**k, but actually I’m s**tting myself.”
“The funny thing is that the next day, I wasn’t even fazed,” he added. “I was as relaxed as I am talking to you right now. I was annoyed when I got stopped, as I didn’t feel hurt — it was just the sheer size of him that got to me. Stevie also had a very weird, clumsy way of throwing the right hand. I couldn’t work out how his shots would spin me and drop me, even when he got me on the shoulder.
“People didn’t think I’d be in there so long. I knew myself that I only had six good rounds in me. I’m tired in the 11th round. Not hurt, just groggy, and his weight is having an effect. He looked tired in the 10th, yet he was smart and came out strong in the 11th to put me down. It was a big effort to get up again. It was sheer tiredness.”
Brown had given it all, was stopped in that 11th and that was that. His unlikely world title shot had not led to an even more improbable win. He later discovered that a back break he picked up on L3 and L4 segments of his spine in his teenage years had gone undiagnosed. It became increasingly difficult to move and train effectively. Following the loss, his career condensed into a staccato version of his road up to that point.
Three wins and four draws followed after the defeat to Collins, including a loss to Hacine Cherifi for the European title. Glenn Catley ended his British title run and another notable reverse was against Sam Soliman for the vacant Commonwealth belt. Amid all this, he had one last stand at the British title level by beating Willian Quinn in his first fight after losing to Collins, his last successful British title defence. His career was the dictionary definition of up-and-down.
The loss to Soliman took place in Burton-on-Trent. It was a personally devastating ninth-round stoppage. Brown was carrying the injuries and niggles boxing and training throws at you over time. Once again, it was a short notice job. Brown was not sure he could make the weight only to take it anyway. As most fighters do in that situation, he hit the sauna and interspersed the sauna sessions with cold showers. Any remaining vim and vigour he had left dribbled out of him and became puddles of sweat on the floor.
“I got to the fight feeling as weak as a kitten. I wasn’t hurt, but my heart was broken. I haven’t looked back at it. I know I wasn’t at my best. I was in it, I made him work hard, trying to burn him out, then got backed to the ropes in round nine and thought, ‘Enough is enough’ — I said the same thing to the referee. I put a towel over my head, walked out the ring, walked out the building after the interview and everything else was done, and walked away from boxing.”
Brown remains an upbeat, positive person. A few years ago, his mother died from a cancer that went undiagnosed for three years. He has tried to fashion something positive from her passing by encouraging men, especially African Caribbean men, who are twice as more at risk, to take prostate screening tests and eat healthily. He has been an active part of the Inspire Health — Fighting Prostate Cancer campaign and created the Neville Brown Philosophy programme to encourage people to eat well, train properly and live well for their long-term health.
“My mum was a small woman and was eating bad, sugary food so put on a lot of weight,” he said. “She had got remarried and went to the hospital as she needed to go to the toilet all the time. We asked questions and didn’t get the answers.
“I went for a break in Devon with the family and got a call saying I needed to talk to my mum in person. I got back and found out she was in hospital with cancer. They’d given her ten days to live due to an inoperable tumour. It was so big it was resting against the bladder, which had caused the problems. Then she lasted for six-months.
“To watch your parent go through that is the most incredible thing as you are watching them suffer. The biggest head f**k was not knowing what she’d be like every time you went into the hospital, if she’d be happy or barely hanging on.
“That is why I do what I do. We are losing synch with ourselves and our bodies. Very few people out there know about nutrition. We need to be happy. We need to look after ourselves and when the time comes you need to be courageous knowing you are leaving this place. It is like having a fight.
“We are dying every day. You’re not the same person you was a year ago. We all age. Every cell in our body dies and then is reborn.
“I want to teach people how the body works so that I can help them and do it in memory of my mum.”